Our Problem

Making his problem “our problem,” even when it’s not my problem.

Our Problem

I had a curious experience in Montreal’s métro recently. I stood on the platform listening to music at a comfortable distance from a grey-haired gentleman who was seated. I paid no special attention to the man except to make sure I was at a safe distance. He wasn’t wearing any headphones, which, given his age, checks out. He waited for his train in silence as countless others have since the métro opened in the 1960s.

Across the tracks, a younger guy took a seat. Unlike the older man, this guy had big headphones on, possibly noise-cancelling ones. As he got comfortable and pulled his phone from his pocket, I noticed something fall to the ground. I didn’t give it a second thought since, with my own headphones in, I likely didn’t hear the heavy plop a full wallet makes when it hits the ground — unlike the grey-haired gentleman. Bereft of entertainment as he was, he heard the plop and he did give it a second thought. He stood up and called out across the tracks. There were only a few other people on the platform and it was quiet, but the wallet guy was engrossed by the sights and sounds of his device, and his headphones were doing their job.

I expected it all to resolve itself. I even felt a bit smug about the other guy’s distraction, since I’ve always considered mobile video to be mostly unenjoyable and probably foolish (although I don’t own noise-cancelling headphones). But it didn’t resolve itself. The older man called out twice and mobile video guy took no notice. Then, the gentleman made sure I knew what was going on.

“Il a échappé son porte-feuille.” He dropped his wallet.

What I had refused to allow be my problem was now became our problem. He didn’t ask for help, but he was looking for it. He was operating under the assumption that if you can right a wrong, you should. I was mostly operating under the poisonous but deep-rooted assumption that if you can move through public space unbothered by other human beings and their needs, that’s a win. So I stepped forward and called out, “hey!”

Nothing. I tried again. We both tried. We looked at each other and sort of shrugged our shoulders. “Peut-etre il va le voir quand il se leve.” Maybe he’ll see it when he stands up, I offered. Those must’ve been some good headphones.

Then the low rumble of the train started from one end of the tunnel. Our train was coming. We both stood by the edge of tracks now, side by side. I waved. Nothing. The lights of the train were visible. “Hey! Hey headpones! Blue Jays hat! HEY!”

He looked up and pulled off an ear-cup.

“Your wallet! Votre porte-feuille.” We both pointed and he bent down to pick up, giving us a grateful thumbs up as the train passed between us. “Bon,” the older man said with a nod and we got on the train. “Thank you,” he said and I told him it was no problem, and it hadn’t been. I hadn’t wanted it to be my problem, but now that we had met it and solved it, I felt almost absurdly pleased.

I was grateful that this stranger had made someone else’s problem his problem, and glad it became our problem, little though it was. I got off three stops later and told the grey-haired gentleman to have a good day, and I meant it. As for my day, it was greatly improved by our shared adventure in being slightly more than mere individuals.

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